Yesterday, 60 Minutes reported on Dr. Anil Potti, researcher at Duke University. Dr. Potti supposedly offered cancer patients improved cancer treatments. These recommendations, however, were based on falsified data.
“Five years ago, Duke University announced it had found the holy grail of cancer research. They’d discovered how to match a patient’s tumor to the best chemotherapy drug. It was a breakthrough because every person’s DNA is unique, so every tumor is different. A drug that kills a tumor in one person, for example, might not work in another. The research was published in the most prestigious medical journals. And more than a hundred desperately ill people invested their last hopes in Duke’s innovation.
In 2010, we learned that the new method was a failure. But what isn’t widely known, until tonight, is that the discovery wasn’t just a failure, it may end up being one of the biggest medical research frauds ever – one that deceived dying patients, the best medical journals and a great university.”
When the National Cancer Institute found they could not replicate Potti’s results, Duke suspended the enrollment of patients in the Potti study and asked outside review committee to analyze Dr. Potti’s discovery. After three months, however, the review committee concluded that Dr. Potti was right.
Why did no one find out earlier. Were researchers blinded by money?
Dr. Rob Califf says ”it was not the money that was the primary driver, it was this great opportunity to help people that was driving people to say, you know, we’ve got to make this work because it looks so good.”
Money may have played a role in Duke not fully investigating the fraud. However, the fact that Dr. Potti’s peers did not notice the fraud was likely not motivated by money. It is more likely due to the collegial atmosphere of academia and–more importantly than helping patients–the ambition for researchers to be at the top of their field. Many of the smart people in academia could earn more money in other fields, but they move towards academia for its intellectual persuits, but also the ambition to become a ‘famous’ researcher known to posterity. This ambition may have blinded researchers to Dr. Potti’s fraud.
I hope that this data falsification is a rare occurrence, but with so much pressure for researchers to make ground-breaking discoveries, my guess is that what 60 Minutes found is just the tip of the iceberg.